One afternoon, as we were driving past a reservoir on the way to our home in the forest of West Marin, three-year-old Ellie and I were chatting away, talking about the fishermen we saw at their favorite spots along the water’s edge. Suddenly, she got very quiet. I looked over to see her rosebud lips pressed together and her little brow furrowed in concentration. She was definitely working on something! I loved these moments, because I always knew what followed would give me a glimpse into the workings of my quiet, intense daughter’s mind.
“Mama, how did the very first fish get in the reservoir?” (This, of course, was back during that lovely, delusional stage when children believe their parents know everything.) I defaulted to my well-worn response: “That’s such a great question, Elle! We’ll have to look that up when we get home.”
Today, at eighteen years old, Ellie is still asking questions and searching for understanding. Only now, asking some of those questions requires a measure of courage many would not be able to muster.
Ellie wanted (no, needed) to understand more about the place and circumstances of her dad’s accident, his attempts at self-rescue, and his death. So on our recent trip to Trinity, she took the initiative to fill in as many pieces of the mysterious puzzle as she could.
The first morning, as we bumped our way up to the memorial site to install the plaque, she had practical questions about how we navigated the maze of logging roads without getting lost or breaking an axle. I showed her the tattered, highlighted map I was using, tracking each intersection, twist, and turn we made. She also got a chance to learn “hands on” how we made the roads passable by filling in the deepest ruts with rocks.
On our hike in to the site, she wanted to know why we called one the landmarks we passed “Lion Rock.” I told her about the afternoon Jo, Michalle and I were stalked by what Michalle thought was probably a mountain lion (warned off by our brave HRD canine companion’s deep, guttural growls). Given we were hiking by that very spot, I was impressed Ellie didn’t suggest maybe we should just (very quietly) exit the area and go back to the safety of the cabin. No, she just kept walking.
We were pretty close to the spot now, so those most important questions that compelled her to come up to the mountains and into these woods now required her to step out in courage and faith at an entirely different level; soon she would be standing at the place where we believe her dad died, and she wanted to know details about the clues pointing to this particular patch of ground–unimaginable as they are.
But I think she also knew she needed to grieve, and that being here would undoubtedly tap into the pain that has silently woven itself deep into her fiber, taking up residence there. And so, we stayed for awhile in that spot–picturing Steve there, imagining his last moments or hours, crying when we needed to, comforting and being comforted. There was no drama–just a circle of some of his favorite people: wife, daughter, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, each missing him in a uniquely personal way, but all feeling he should be here with us.
Then the next morning, Ellie wanted to go to Billy’s Peak where Steve fell. We didn’t have the half-a-day it would take to drive then hike up there, so we did the next best thing: we climbed into our friend Jeff’s bright blue, four-wheel drive vehicle, along with our pastor, Dale. Together, we took on the über steep dirt road to the Upper Landing Zone, where we had a bird’s-eye view of the peak from across the ravine. Ellie stood there and stared down this imposing mountain that took her father. And then she used that excellent mind to ask all the questions she needed to, taking in all of the hard answers. From that vantage point, we were able to show her where he fell, then slid down the mountain. We pointed out the choices he had and the logic of his decision in the heat of the day to move toward the shady evergreens and the creek below.
We drove back down and enjoyed a welcome break from all that intensity before the rest of the group was to arrive and head back up with us for our small service. We swam and splashed in what must be the perfect, agate green swimming hole, just up the road from the cabin.
Later that evening, after our service on the mountain, we all gathered at the pizza place, where we sat at long tables under strings of white lights, enjoying the perfect, warm summer night and live music playing in the background. Jo, our lead tracker, joined us for pizza and conversation. Ellie sat opposite her and quickly pushed past her shyness to seize the opportunity to learn everything she possibly could from this humble, dedicated, highly skilled woman. Jo, over fifteen months, patiently tracked Steve more than two miles down that mountain. My friend, Jeff G., brought his laptop, loaded with hundreds of pictures from the weekend, and these served as visual context for the puzzle Ellie was gradually piecing together.
The next day, as we were packing to leave, the question came up as to whether we would ever return. And without missing a beat, Ellie replied, “Of course we will. This is where Dad is.”
I love that young woman (clearly no longer a girl). She went through this experience fully committed to keeping her eyes and mind wide open, asking the questions, facing the fear, willing to feel the pain. And in so doing, she has been blessed with moving through a whole layer of healing–enough that she now thinks of this place as somewhere she wants to be. Well done, Elle. Well done.
“Healing is an active state, not a destination. In that light, and no other, it’s a beautiful thing.”